About Head and Neck Cancer
The majority of head and neck cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. Squamous cell cancer occurs in the outermost layer of skin that lines the moist, mucosal surfaces inside the head and neck, such as the inside of the mouth, nose, and throat. Head and neck cancers include cancers of the larynx, lips, mouth, nasal cavity, salivary glands, sinuses, and throat. While other types of cancers are also located in the head and neck region, such as brain tumors, esophageal cancer, eye cancer, parathyroid cancer, sarcoma, and thyroid cancer, these types of cancer are not grouped with head and neck cancers as they involve a much different diagnosis and treatment process.
Types of Head and Neck Cancer
Head and neck cancers are named according to the part of the body where they develop. There are six main types of head and neck cancers.
Common head and neck cancers:
- Lip and oral cavity cancer occurs on the lip, in the mouth, cheek, jawbone areas, and front aspect of the tongue.
- Oropharyngeal cancer occurs in the mouth and on the back of the tongue as well as from the back of the throat to the tip of the voice box.
- Nasopharyngeal cancer occurs in the upper part of the throat behind the nose.
- Laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer occurs at the voice box area (at the top of windpipe, or trachea).
Rare head and neck cancers:
- Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer occurs in the space just behind the nose and surrounding the nasal cavity.
- Salivary gland cancer occurs under the jawbone, in the bottom of the mouth, under the tongue, and on the sides of the face, in front of the ears.
Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancer
Symptoms of head and neck cancer often include a lump or sore that does not heal, a lump in the neck area, difficulty in swallowing, a sore throat that does not go away, and a change of hoarseness in the voice. Symptoms are specific to certain areas of the head and neck.
- Swelling of the jaw
- Unusual bleeding or pain in the mouth
- A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, or lining of the mouth
- Trouble breathing or speaking or swallowing
- Pain when swallowing
- Pain in the neck or throat that doesn’t go away
- Trouble hearing
- Frequent headaches, pain, or ringing in the ears
- Change in voice and hoarseness
- Pain or difficulty when swallowing
- Ear pain
Sinuses and nasal cavity:
- Blocked sinuses that do not clear
- Chronic sinus infections that do not respond to treatment with antibiotics
- Bleeding through the nose
- Pain in the upper teeth
- Problems with dentures
- Frequent headaches, swelling, or other trouble with the eyes
- Swelling under the chin or around the jawbone
- Numbness or paralysis of the muscles in the face
- Pain in the face, the chin, or the neck that does not go away
Risk Factors for Head and Neck Cancer
Major risk factors for head and neck cancer are tobacco (e.g., cigarettes, cigars, pipes, smokeless/chewing tobacco) and alcohol use usually in older individuals. Human papilloma virus due to sexual contact is a major cause of oropharyngeal cancer in younger patients. Asians, particularly of Chinese ancestry, are at higher risk for developing head and neck cancer associated with Epstein Barr virus infection and nasopharyngeal cancer than other races, and men are two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with head and neck cancer than women.
Other possible risk factors associated with head and neck cancer:
- Occupational exposure to wood dust, formaldehyde, asbestos, nickel, and other chemicals
- Prior Radiation treatment
- Poor oral hygiene or dentition
- Betal nut chewing
- Disorders of the immune system/immunodeficiency (e.g., prior organ transplantation or HIV)
Treating Head and Neck Cancer at UT Health Austin
Treatment requires accurate diagnosis and a care plan tailored to the specific type of tumor, the tumor’s location, and the overall needs of the patient. The different behavior of different tumor types helps drive decisions about treatment, which may include combinations of surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.
Care Team Approach
At UT Health Austin, we take a multidisciplinary approach to your care. This means you will benefit from the expertise of multiple specialists across a variety of disciplines. Your care team will include medical oncologists, surgical oncologists, radiation oncologists, pathologists, radiologists, oncofertility specialists, onco-psychiatrists, genetic counselors, physical therapists, dietitians, social workers, and more as well as other members of the CaLM Care Team who work together to help you get back to the things in your life that matter most to you. We also collaborate with our colleagues at the Dell Medical School and The University of Texas at Austin to utilize the latest research, diagnostic, and treatment techniques, allowing us to identify and utilize new therapies to improve cancer treatment outcomes. We are committed to communicating and coordinating your care with your other healthcare providers to ensure that we are providing you with comprehensive, whole-person care.